November 16, 2001
Re: Street issues
Your letter of October 11, 2001 has been referred to me for reply.
You have asked for advice on whether the city should accept a street that is not paved or improved and then spend municipal revenues to bring the street up to standards or whether the city should adhere closely to the street acceptance policy dictated by the city’s subdivision regulations. Specifically you have asked whether it would be illegal for the city to accept the street other than as provided in its street acceptance policy. In my opinion, it would not be illegal to accept such a street and then expend public revenues to improve it. The questions whether it would be wise from the point of view of appearances and whether there would be others who would view this as a precedent to get other unimproved streets accepted is a matter the governing body will have to decide.
Street dedication and acceptance is governed by both statutory and common law. There are some general statutory provisions that also have some pertinence. Your City is incorporated under the general law Mayor-Aldermanic Charter (Tennessee Code Annotated, § 6-1-101, et seq.). TCA § 6-2-201(15) authorizes the city to “Establish, open, relocate, vacate, alter, widen, extend, grade, improve, repair, construct, reconstruct, maintain, light, sprinkle, and clean public highways, streets, boulevards...”, etc. Further, the Local Government Public Obligations Act (TCA §9-21-101, et seq.) authorizes the city to construct and to borrow money for the construction of public works projects within or outside the corporate limits. This Act defines “Public works project” as including streets, roads, rights of way, and many other projects. (See §§ 9-21-105 and 107).
The more specific statutory provision on street acceptance, however, is TCA § 13-4-307. This statute provides three (3) ways a street may be or become a public street once a city has a planning commission whose platting jurisdiction has attached:
1. The street could have received the legal status as a public street before the attachment of the planning commission’s subdivision jurisdiction; or
2. The street must correspond in its location and lines with a street shown on a subdivision plat approved by the planning commission or with a street plat made and adopted by the commission; or
3. The governing body may locate, construct, or accept any other street by ordinance or other measure if the proposal is first submitted to the planning commission for approval.
Under the third method, which is the one pertinent in the situation you posit, a majority of the entire membership of the governing body must approve the measure if it is disapproved by the planning commission. A street accepted in this way has the same status as a street shown on an approved subdivision plat.
Case law in Tennessee recognizes implicitly that the methods for acceptance of streets in § 13-4-308 are not exclusive. For example, State ex rel. Matthews v. Metropolitan Government ofNashville and Davidson County, 679 S.W.2d 946 (Tenn., 1984) and McCord v. Hays, 302 S.W.2d 331 (Tenn., 1957) indicate that public ways may be dedicated and accepted expressly or by implication. Courts look to several factors to determine whether a dedication has been made:(1) whether the owner invited or acquiesced in the public’s use; (2) whether the public has repaired the street; and (3) whether the public has used the property for an extended time. Reece v. Brown , 2000wl 66362(Tenn. Ct. App., 2000). The Matthews case holds that “Public acceptance of an offer of dedication may consist of either a formal act on the part of public authorities or common use by the general public.” 679 S.W.2d at 949. Also instructive on this point might be OTAG 81-406(July 8, 1981). Therefore, in my opinion, the governing body may accept the dedication of the street in question under either TCA § 13-4-307 or under the common law by repairing or using the street.
The difficult question for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen is whether they should vary from their policy and accept this street. Dedications do not have necessarily to be accepted. See Jacoway v. Palmer, 753 S.W.2d 675 (Tenn. App.1987). See also cases cited in footnotes to § 33.53, McQuillin, Municipal Corporations. Policies should not be lightly disregarded. Policies exist, of course, to try to make sure that persons in similar situations are treated in a similar manner and that all are therefore treated fairly. In my view, a policy should be varied only when the rote application of the policy would result in unfairness or inequity. The reasons for such a variance should be well documented to avoid future allegations of unfairness or favoritism. Certainly, a policy should not be varied or excepted from when the variance or exception will result in the very thing the policy was adopted to avoid: unfairness or inequity. It is not difficult to imagine a person or group making allegations of favoritism or discrimination if they are latter held to a policy after an ill-considered exception has been made. These are some things for the board to consider.
I hope this information is helpful. If you have more questions, however, please feel free to call.
MTAS Legal Consultant